A Meeting of Friends

18/05/15

I remember planning the night before planning to not take a shower the next day until I got to my friend Dani’s place, because I would be walking out in the hot sun with my luggage again. Even though it would only be for about 15-20 minutes, that much time dragging luggage around in the sun can make all the difference. I had taken one the evening before I left St. Petersburg and I try to only take one every other day because it is supposed to be better for your skin and hair, but this usually ends up being every day and a half or even every day because I hate being dirty. Unfortunately this morning I just felt so dirty that I had to take a shower. I got up early because I was still on St. Petersburg time and used to waking up at 7:30 am for class, and the first thing I did was shower (without a towel).

Throughout my travels this last year I have often not had a towel to use, or only a very small one. When I traveled in Russia, I used a hand towel, which was actually a sufficient size to serve the purpose of drying myself off. When I traveled over winter with Kenzy and Ali, Kenzy and I both did not use towels because we didn’t have them to bring with us. Drip drying was good enough. This time I still didn’t have a towel to use, but I needed a shower (I think the lack of towel was another reason I had intended to wait until I got to Dani’s to shower, because I assumed she had some that I might be able to use).

Dream Cube Hostel thankfully has breakfast included since I didn’t have any groceries. The breakfast was the typical European hostel breakfast. There was coffee, tea, and milk of course, some fruit, cornflakes, bread that you could make toast with and jams to put on the toast. I decided to take a couple of pears and an apple and cut them up to put on my cereal. This was the breakfast that we had had almost every morning while we traveled in the winter, with slight variations here and there, and this was the best I could come up with, with what I had to work with.

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(The park we visited)

After I had finished eating breakfast, I let Dani know that I was ready to come over whenever she was. She wanted to take some time to clean up after our other friend left, so I got back to work booking flights and hostels and communicating with my friend in France to see if I could come visit. As has been my intention throughout this trip, I tried to study some Russian, but everyone wants to know what you are doing so it is very difficult in the hostel environment.

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(The pond at the park)

Eventually Dani was ready for me so I headed in her direction. The street between us was on a hill, and thankfully I was headed downhill rather than up.

I found what I thought was her building, and realized that we hadn’t talked about a way for me to contact her when I got there. I managed to get in the building and stood around for a while looking at the mailboxes or for some clue as to where in the building she stayed. Eventually I decided it might be better to exit the building because anyone who came in kind of gave me a strange look since I was standing there with my luggage looking lost in a building that you had to have a key or have someone buzz you in to enter.

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(Barcelona’s Arch of Triumph)

I stood back out on the street looking at the buttons that would call each apartment (because sometimes they have names next to them), and then Dani came out probably not even five minutes later to throw some clothes away. (She was leaving Barcelona soon at this point and had to decrease the amount of possessions she owned abroad because she could not carry it all home).

After we made it inside, we started off the day (it was probably 1 or 2pm at this point so “starting” might not be the proper word) in a very relaxed manor. Dani took a nap because she was tired from having our other friend over, and talked to my friend with whom I planned to visit Istanbul until it came time for me to attend my online orientation for my summer program.

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(The arch up close)

Eventually Dani got up and decided to show me a little bit of the city. We went to a beautiful park with a pond, and spent some time walking through it and just enjoying the greenery, and catching up of course.

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(Looking for contact cleaner, or on the way)

(A little background on us. Dani and I met at my university in Pennsylvania. She was a junior (3rd year) when I was a freshman (1st year). We met on the cheer team. We both cheered that year and were both treated badly by the captains. She was also in the sorority I joined my sophomore (2nd) year, and she was a major part in me joining. Not because she tried to convince me to join or not join, she (and most of the rest of my sorority) was just the type of person I would want to call my sister. Through mutual experiences, and just having enough in common we became good friends and close sisters).

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(All of the pigeons)

After walking through the park, she showed me that Barcelona had an arch of triumph, like France (not that I have seen the one in France because I have not been there yet).

Before heading back in the direction of home, we decided to look at an optometry store to see if they had the contact solution that I needed. I had not worn my contacts for the last 2 months while I studied because I ran out of the cleaner and could not figure out how to get it in Russia. We asked a lady and thought she understood what I wanted. The bottle I was sold was weird, but I needed to wear my contacts so I thought I would give it a try.

Dani had spent all of her money while our other friend was with her, so she did not have much to spend with me. On that first night she showed me a small restaurant that she said was very local, and the plan was for me to eat there and her to eat back at her apartment since I wanted to try something local.

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(Modern Art)

At first I sat outside because the weather was nice, but the waiter immediately asked me what I wanted, and when I asked for a menu, he said they didn’t have any and beckoned me inside. He sat me at a table and handed me a menu in English and one in Spanish. I was supposed to find what I wanted in English then find it on the menu in Spanish because the man did not speak a word of English. Unfortunately the menus were slightly different. I wanted some sort of sausage with mushroom sauce, and instead ended up with sausages with fries. At least the fries were real, and the meal was only about 6 euros, which is very inexpensive for a bigger city like Barcelona.

That night, after I returned, we broke out the vodka. Dani apologetically mentioned that she did not have shot glasses, but funnily and fittingly enough (because I had been in Russia), I did. We definitely did not finish the bottle that night. We only got about a third of the way through it, and then we decided to head to a bar. The bar we were planning to go to was called the Dow-Jones Bar or something. The idea was that the price of drinks would go up if someone bought one, but if one had not been sold in a while then the price would start dropping. I thought it was a really cool idea, so I wanted to see it.

The night did not really go as planned and we left the bar almost as soon as we arrived and returned home to watch a movie or something. I want to ask my friend before I put additional information about the night and Barcelona in general in my blog.

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The Day of Expiration

17/05/15

On the 17th my Russian visa, which had been extended the previous semester, expired. After something like this you cannot feel physically different, but the mental realization was kind of shocking. Russia, and specifically St. Petersburg, had been my home for so long and for such a significant time in my life, and I was leaving the city behind without a notion of when I would be able to return. Who knows when I will be back? But I promised everyone that I would return, including myself.

I had a few rubles leftover, so I decided to buy a bottle of good vodka (0.5 liters) to take to my friend who I would see in Barcelona. The first night in Barcelona I stayed in a hostel because my friend had another friend visiting her and could not host two people at once.

I arrived in Barcelona at the airport at about 8 am. As I was going through passport control, I was stopped because they asked my for my return flight information. At that point I did not have any flight beyond Barcelona booked, so I could tell them when I was leaving the European Union, but I could not give them documents confirming what I said. Normally this is not a problem when flying into the EU, but there are certain cities that are more interested in such information. We all know the rules concerning travel, so it really should not be a problem, but after getting to know more about Barcelona I understood why. At passport control they took my passport and made me sit off to the side for about 10 minutes, then someone came to talk to me and give my passport back, but I was immediately let through. They did stamp my passport, but it makes me wonder if they put a flag on my passport or something, although I doubt it. I have never broken the law, so they would have no reason to. I don’t know why they needed it for so long, but at least it was returned to me.

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(Coming in for landing)

After entering the luggage carrousel area of the airport and picking up my checked bag, the first thing I did was try to withdraw money because I needed cash for transportation as well as paying for the hostel upon my arrival. There were two ATMs right next to each other, so I tried one a couple times, then the other and was a little worried that they didn’t work. I decided to go online to try to check my bank account to see if there was a problem, but this was easier said than done. My phone had updated a few weeks before and ever since the update it has trouble connecting to free wifi, which has proved to be very frustrating because I have no data plan abroad and internet is pretty important when trying to find your way around another city, much less another country. (But, of course, people managed this before wifi as well)

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(Not the most beautiful area of the coastline)

Finally I did manage to connect to the internet, only to receive an email warning that there was unusual activity on my card. I realized I had forgotten to tell the bank I was traveling after I completed my program in Russia. I had only warned them I would be abroad until May 17th, and then the plan was for me to go home (the plan that had been created before I left the United States in June). I quickly let the bank know that the attempts to use my card were not due to fraud, and then set a travel alert on my bank account to let them know where else I was planning to travel. After I overcame this headache, I was immediately able to withdraw money and move onto the next headache of trying to find my way to the hostel I would be staying at for the night. I had purposely booked a hostel located about a 15 minute walk from where my friend had told me she lived in Barcelona so that I would not have to struggle to get my bags onto additional transportation to get there.

The directions the hostel gave if one wanted to use public transportation and not pay for a taxi required a person to make two transfers on the transportation. First, from bus to metro, and then from metro to tram. I decided before I started my journey that this was a bit excessive, so I went to ask information how to get to the hostel to see if they had another option. It seemed that they did – a transfer simply from one bus to another.

I went on my way (paying the bus driver with a 20 euro note. In Russia he probably would not have let me ride the bus, but I didn’t have anything smaller because I had just withdrawn money) and found myself at the main plaza (sort of a giant roundabout) where I would make a transfer to the next bus. Unfortunately, it was not as easy as the lady at information had described. The plaza had bus stops on every connecting street, so I went around in a circle from street to street, with all of my luggage, checking the bus stops and trying to figure out the map of transportation to see if my bus would be there. (In addition to walking around with my luggage, I was still wearing the jeans and light jacket I had donned the night before when I was headed to the airport in St. Petersburg, so I was very warm). The bus stop I wanted was not there as far as I could tell. In the end I decided to try the metro. I am used to using the metro in Russia. I know the one in St. Petersburg very well, and I can get around on the one in Moscow too, and after traveling on so many in the winter I thought it wouldn’t be a problem for me to take this one. What I found was a mess. The entrances weren’t clear, so I ended up carrying (not rolling) my luggage through a mess of underground passageways, up and down stairs, that were supposed to be “convenient connections.” I did eventually make it to the right area and found my way to the tram. Getting on the tram was pretty straightforward, but after getting off, I got lost again.

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(At the first plaza)

The directions after getting off the tram seemed pretty straightforward. Normally I think I am pretty capable of getting around alone and reading a map, since I have had to do this multiple times without a GPS, but I have to get lost sometimes, otherwise I won’t learn. At the end of the tram was another roundabout that I ended up walking around, with all of my luggage with me as well. I finally did find the correct street I was looking for and made it to the hostel where I would be staying for the night. I walked in the front door and found, as with many European hostels, the hostel was on the second floor, so I had to walk up the stairs with all of my luggage. I don’t like taking multiple trips if I don’t have to, so backpack on my back, 50 pounds in one hand and the carry-on in the other; I made my way up the narrow stairs. They heard me coming as the bag occasionally hit the wall, but I made it.

I found reception at the top. A man was working there at the time when I arrived (in his late 20’s); he took one look at me and understood that I was tired (after staying up all night for the plane ride, and then walking around for a while with my luggage, how could I not be). Unfortunately the beds weren’t ready because they were still cleaning the rooms and changing the sheets, but at least I was able to sit in one place.

As I mentioned before, I was stopped at passport control, so I decided that since I could not sleep, that this would be a good time to start booking the rest of my trip. At this point (one May 17th) I only had my trip figured out until May 26th.

Finally the bed was ready, so the rest of my day was spent taking a long nap. The hostel I stayed at was called “Dream Cube.” The beds were such that we basically slept in our own cubes. The room I was in probably had 6 beds, but each bed had a curtain that shut out the light and separated you from the rest of the people in the room. It was very nice to have these curtains since I wanted to sleep in the middle of the afternoon. The hostel was very comfortable, and I would recommend it if you choose to travel to Barcelona.

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(My shadow in the hot sun with my luggage and light jacket)

When I finally woke up, it was much later. This was my first time staying in a hostel by myself because when I traveled alone in Lithuania, I chose to stay with hosts. People traveling in groups bigger than 2 are intimidating to people who choose to travel alone, because I have been in those groups, and unless you approach others, people won’t bother you. Traveling alone you make your friends along the way and go see sights with people from the hostel if you choose. Since I was only in the Barcelona hostel for one night, the social aspect was not as important, but I ended up speaking with fellow hostel-stayers as well as the man working there, for hours. The man was Catalan – the cultural group that is native to Barcelona. He was very nice, so I did not get the initial experience of the Catalan people that I later understood them to be.

The man working there offered me some of his soup, which I decided to try because I think at this point in the day the only thing I had eaten was a bag of peanuts, and it was also too late to go out and buy groceries, not that I really wanted to because I was only there for one night. It was apparently a traditional Catalan summer soup. It was cold and really good in the heat. Although I am from California and warm weather is usually very normal for me, I was not used to the heat anymore because in Russia it had still been cool enough that I often needed a light jacket, and I had not even been out of Russia for 24 hours at this point.

I did end up meeting some very interesting people at this hostel and really enjoyed my stay. Unfortunately I will not stay in touch with them because it was a brief meeting, and you cannot stay in touch with everyone. One conversation I remember having was with a guy, who I believe was from Chile. He was studying in Holland and traveling with a friend he met there. We had a conversation about South American names and how they tend to use both last names from their parents, as well as remembering a few names back on the father’s side of the family. He said if you did not do this, you would never know that you might be related to someone. This is part of the reason why in films from this area of the world the names are so long, but not the only reason. He mentioned that in these films, often a person would add a religious phrase, which would make their name even longer and sound more complicated or interesting.

We had many interesting conversations, but unfortunately it was too long ago now for me to remember.

Since I had slept earlier I ended up staying up later than most people there, but at least without people to talk to I got some work done.

Munich on Christmas Eve

24/12/14

It was a sunny day with temperatures warmer than what Kenzy and I had been experiencing for a while in St. Petersburg and warmer than Nuremberg had been. We did not hurry to get out of bed, but the fact that breakfast closed at a certain time probably helped motivate us to get up. However, breakfast closed later than usual because it was Christmas Eve, which is considered a holiday, so it was still a late morning. Since the planning for the days in Munich had happened the night before, we already had an idea of what we planned to accomplish that day, but we never try to stick to a specific time schedule unless it includes our train from one city to another, or the breakfast that won’t wait for us to roll out of bed at whatever time we please.

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(I felt the need to take a picture of my shadow to prove and remember that it was actually a sunny day).

When we finally walked out the door to start our day, I decided not to where my long, warm, purple coat because of the difference in temperature, hoping that it would stay how it was and not become any colder or windier. As we got on the tram to take us in the direction of our first destination, we noticed that everything was closed. Christmas Eve is apparently a big holiday in this part of the world, bigger I would say than Christmas itself, unlike in the United States where stores are still open until probably the early afternoon on Christmas Eve for last minute shoppers. However, we did not completely find this out until later. It made sense that some places would be closed the day before Christmas, but how many places would be closed?

The previous day when we arrived in Munich we had also purchased transportation passes that were valid for three days. We left on the fourth day, at which point the passes would be expired, but we would deal with that when the time came because the deal had been for three days. These passes were valid for any form of basic city transportation, so we were able to take a local train over to Dachau because our first plan was to see the Dachau Concentration Camp. Although it is one of the lesser known ones left from World War II, it was the one we were going to come closest to on this trip, and since we had missed out on the Nuremberg Court House where the trials took place and the Nazi parade grounds (which we had wanted and planned to visit) due to transportation costs, we decided this was something we both wanted and needed to do.

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(The entrance to Dachau)

From the train we took a bus to the entrance of the camp. We had planned to take a tour, but despite what had been written online, the tour that was supposed to run even on Christmas Eve, was not running. Instead we led ourselves around the camp grounds and took away from it as much as we could from what information was offered on posters placed throughout the area.

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(The building into which we could not go)

From what I have heard about other Nazi Concentration Camps, many of the buildings are still standing and there is almost no need for the imagination to picture what horrors took place there. With Dachau, this was not the case. The grounds left where the camp was located was a field and trees for the most part. There were signs pointing you to where buildings used to stand and what had taken place there while the camp was active, but to really feel the impact of the camp, the imagination was much needed in forming the pictures painted by the words that we read.

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(On The Path of Remembrance)

In reality, we only got to see a very small part of what was left of the camp. There was at least one building left standing that was the entrance to another part of the camp, but the gates were closed firmly in front of it. We stood by the gate for a short while to look through it at the area we could not enter and in that short time a man walked up and asked us brusquely what we wanted, (to which we replied that we were just looking) then informed us that the buildings were closed so we could not enter (which we had deduced from the locked gates), but if we came back tomorrow, they would be open. Open on Christmas. Thus the comment I made about Christmas Eve as opposed to Christmas Day earlier.

Even though so much of the camp was closed, we only saw two or three other people there, so it was nice to try to be able to understand what happened in relative silence. We made our way into an area of the camp called The Path of Remembrance. I thought initially this path would lead to a bus station where we would take the bus back to the train station, but I was very wrong. The path started in the camp area that was open on Christmas Eve, but soon we walked out of that area and next to an area that the sign told us used to be the SS training center for this camp, but now served as offices of some sort for current riot police in the city and could not be entered because it was private property. We thought it odd that these riot police would continue to use buildings with a history as awful as that that comes from World War II and the concentration camps, but they must have had some reason for doing so. The Path of Remembrance led us from sign to sign and finally back to the train station. I don’t remember how many signs there were, but we skipped two of them because we could not find them.

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(I can’t forget to include the Dalmatian at the train station. Usually I think Dalmatians are a rather ugly breed of dog, but this one was beautiful).

I can’t say it was a good first time going to a concentration camp because what is good about a concentration camp, but I do know that in the future I will definitely have to visit others to better understand the horror and pain of these places. I have always had an interest in the history of World War II, but reading about what happened during the war, and visiting the sites where these events occurred as well as being able to couple the information I read about them with the experience of visiting the place, are definitely different experiences.

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(Down at the old town)

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After visiting the concentration camp, our next stop was the old town. In the old town we spent more time seeing sights. Really it was buildings and architecture in this part that caught our interest, as it will continue to in many of the countries we will visit. We could tell that there had been Christmas Markets here since the stalls were still up, but they were all closed and some were in the process of being packed up. Since we had already enjoyed the markets in Nuremberg, we didn’t mind that the markets here were already closed. In every city we go to we seem to find a Starbucks, unintentionally, but we find them. In Nuremberg we found it in the old town. Since it was Christmas Eve we decided we would all treat ourselves to a Starbucks. Kenzy and Ali wanted peppermint mochas on their search for peppermint that Nuremberg had denied them and now Munich. Of course, Starbucks was out of peppermint syrup, so Ali and I ordered white mochas while Kenzy ordered a toffee-nut latte.

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(I have no idea what many of these buildings were)

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(But they were pretty and the sky was blue, so I took pictures)

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(Some of the are obviously churches or clock towers, but others are just buildings with shops renting space in them).

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(Then the clouds started moving in)

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It was a cold and windy day by this time and all indoor seating areas of the Starbucks were full, so we went out by a restaurant (which was closed) and enjoyed our Starbucks being sheltered by the building from the wind. Unfortunately, although I had one or two drinks from Starbucks in St. Petersburg, I had not had a white mocha. Although I love white mochas, the amount of milk in them makes my stomach turn, so I sat there after finishing my Starbucks with pain twisting my insides.

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(Eventually came the adventure of strange things)

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(And just another random and pretty building I wanted to include, but didn’t know where to put it. There will be many of these because I am interested in buildings and architecture and art).

Eventually I convinced myself to get up because I thought walking around might help and at first it was very painful, but the pain subsided as we walked to see more of the old town. We probably stayed out for another hour because it was already getting dark and by the end of that hour my stomach felt almost normal again.

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(I don’t know who this was, but it looked so strange I had to touch it to understand the texture).

On this last hour of exploration of the old town we found a few strange things. The first was a monument to someone; I am not really sure who. The important part of this strange finding was the base of this monument. The base was covered, and I mean completely covered on all four sides, in pictures and other objects of or relating to Michael Jackson. We could not figure out why it was there, but for some reason it was.

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(Here is a picture of the front of the Micheal Jackson… thing).

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(But there were also cool light spheres hanging in the trees)

The next strange thing we happened across was a small shop. The inside of the shop was illuminated even though the shop itself was closed. Inside the shop were pictures drawn and painted of Donald Duck with money. I can’t really explain the pictures, they were all different, but they all followed the same theme of having both Donald Duck and something relating to money. It was so strange, especially since this was a shop and people buy items from shops, but we didn’t know who would buy something so specific, so, why Donald Duck and money?

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(Unfortunately this picture turned out to be a little bit blurry. I had forgotten about it when I was initially writing the post, but I feel the need to include this. I am completely supportive of the idea of creative license and I understand the aesthetic appeal of having more than just a plain, white building, but in what world would anyone or anything want their legs or fins twisted like that? It is very strange to me).

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From this point we soon decided to go back to the hostel and eat dinner. We had bought cans of soup at the grocery store the day before, which was good since it was now closed. When we had first gone up to our room the night before, we noticed a pizza machine on the way up. This was a machine that stated hot pizza could be ready in 15 minutes. We decided that because it was Christmas Eve and because we were just curious about the pizza machine, that we would have pizza around an hour after dinner as our late night snack. The pizza actually wasn’t bad, although it was small (not that we paid much for it), it was just strange that it came from a machine.

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(Oh, and I can’t forget these lit up people that were above a store front).

Trains, Tickets, Errands, and Markets

22/12/14

(Again, I am late posting again because it seems that the internet at the hostel where I posted the last post only worked for one day and then could not load anything after that. I will do my best posting regularly, but all I can say is I will post when the internet permits me to).

The following day was Monday, so more stands were open and more people were in the market. After eating breakfast (which at this hostel had been a terrible option of copious quantities of bread with choice slices of meat and cheese and some substance resembling cereal) we went back down to the market area with the intention of asking someone where a post office was so that I could mail back the extra Eurail pass that the company had annoyingly sent to me. (A Eurail pass is a pass you can buy to be valid for travel by various means within the European Union in valid countries that is only valid for a certain period after you activate them, but that overall makes the cost of travel less expensive if you plan to travel that much. Unfortunately for them, citizens of countries within the European Union are unable to purchase and use them. We found a post office stand where people were mailing postcards and I frantically scribbled a postcard to my family in the few seconds before it became our turn in line. I like to send postcards and letters and anyone who knows me well enough knows this, there just aren’t very many people who seem to enjoy writing or receiving such things like this as I do, so I end up sending them to my family usually. I am also not buying souvenirs on this trip because Europe is already expensive enough to travel in, so this is my chosen form of souvenirs for my family.

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(There were strange pieces of art all over the city. We found this particular one on the way back from the post office).

We asked our question and sent our postcards (Kenzy sent one too) and went on our way to find the real post-office. I was very annoyed to find out that in Europe you can’t simply write “Return to Sender” on the outside of an unopened envelope or package and have it returned without paying another shipping fee, like in the United States. Instead you have to put it in a new envelope, rewrite all of the addresses and pay the new shipping fee. I had not sent the Eurail pass back before the journey had started because I didn’t physically have it. Since Kenzy and I had been staying in Russia and new that the Russian mail system was not the most efficient or reliable, we had made the decision to send the Eurail passes all to Ali in Aberdeen, so she ended up with my extra one but did not have the time to send it back since she had to pack everything up because she would not be returning to Aberdeen for the next semester. When all was said and done, at least that was one less thing we had to worry about on our journey, even though I had to pay for it.

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(Also on the way back from the post office, just an idea of what some of the buildings looked like in this area).

After sending the Eurail pass back, we had business to attend to at the train station. We had to activate the Eurail passes to be able to use them; this apparently just took the stamp and a signature of a European Union transport official. Our train was the next day, so we wanted to ask all of the necessary questions and make reservations for some trains if they were needed. Apparently Italy has a very messy train system, so we had to reserve all of the trains relating to places we were going in Italy. For the rest of them (hoping there was room) we could just get on in the second class area and fill out the information on our Eurail passes to be stamped when needed. Some of the reservations were much more expensive then I would have liked, but I am told that overall the price for transport done this way was still cheaper than buying each of these train tickets individually.

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(on the way back from the train station, the sun sets early at this time of the year).

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(A church we walked by many times and finally visited).

It was not very late in the day and we had already been productive getting all of this done. (Actually now that I remember this more clearly after the retelling this story, we did all of these errands the same day I got my luggage back, so the day before, but since I already posted about that day and so that I will have something to write about this day other than walking around the markets, I will continue as if it happened this day).

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(The front of the church)

On the way back into the busier parts of the markets, Kenzy bought a desert we had seen at some of the stands before. She let me try a bite and, although it looked rather intriguing, it turned out not to taste like much of anything. It was a chocolate exterior with a flavored marshmallow filling (they had different options for the flavors and Kenzy bought the mocha one). Unfortunately the flavoring of the filling was too weak so in the end it didn’t taste like anything.

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(Stained glass window)

We also happened upon a smaller market area which was located inside what looked like a small village but was all shops. It was very quaint and Christmassy and enjoyable see, but not to walk through. The part that made it unenjoyable was the crowd we faced in every direction we turned. When we left this smaller area and returned to the larger and more open areas of the market, it was even more difficult to walk anywhere because more people kept arriving.

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(Entering the throngs of the market place)

Later we returned to the children’s area of the market because they sold a dessert over there that we wanted to try. I don’t really know how to describe it except to give you the unpleasant image of a mass of dough in a bowl with a watery-textured vanilla pudding substance around it and cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top. It was a lot more attractive than what I just described, otherwise why would we buy it, and tastier too.

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(It became more crowded as it got darker)

I have traveled with people before who choose not to eat local food because they want to save money and I understand that, I want to save money too. However, I must say that every time I go someplace new I try to find local dishes to try because I feel like I haven’t traveled there and experienced as much as I can of the culture unless I try the food they eat. Also if I am traveling, I know perfectly well that I am spending and not saving money. I can try to spend less, but that does not mean I am saving any. There just needs to be a balance between spending money on food at a restaurant and buying groceries at a market. In addition, if I don’t have a kitchen available to me, then I have to spend money. This is why I am always buying and trying new dishes. Also, if you read any of my blog while I was in Lithaunia towards the end of this last summer and noticed that I went to an Indian restaurant, a Thai restaurant and so on, if I am staying in one location for that long I sometimes miss certain cuisine, but I also like to compare what other countries offer in the area of cuisine and their flavors to what I am used to in the United States.

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(Some examples of what was sold in the market)

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There were a few cathedrals we had passed the previous day in the markets, usually churches are free to visit, but occasionally (in touristy locations) they will charge you. These were free though so we did visit one. It was beautiful and spacious with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. However, it was obviously so spacious, done in an old gothic style, that there was no possible way the building could be heated. A few decorations had been set up around the church for Christmas, but no major decorations could be placed because the ceilings were too high to be useful for decorating.

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(The high ceilings of the church)

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(Inside the church)

One beautiful part of this particular church was what looked like a square filled with white sand, in the center of the square was a small nativity and around the edge of the square, people had placed small candles and drawn designs in the sand with their hands.

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At the end of the day, we really had spent time trying new food and enjoying the Christmas lights and the Christmas markets. Maybe this would not be interesting for some people, but the markets had such a variety of goods to buy and even a section where different stalls represented different countries (the United States was represented by Jack Daniel’s and other ridiculous paraphernalia), that it kept us entertained just looking at many of these stalls. Perhaps I will return to these markets in the future, when I am not already bogged down by a year abroad in Russia, and actually buy something representative of these markets or Christmas. It won’t be the Jack Daniel’s though.

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(More ornaments from the market)

A Russian Morning to You too

21/12/14

(I am sorry for the delay in posting. The combination of me being under the weather and choosing to sleep instead of write at times, combined with the “free wifi” at previous hostels that my computer won’t actually connect to, I seem to have fallen behind. I hope to start posting twice a day, or 3 times every 2 days to try to catch up, but I don’t think these extra posts will be regular, only when I have time to write something extra).

The next morning we woke up and packed up since we had to check out by 10:00 a.m. When we finally made it downstairs to check out, we decided it would be ideal to ask about the two bags that were supposed to come into the airport that day. Kenzy and I talked to the man at the desk in Russian while Ali waited nearby. Another man showed up who also spoke Russian and, although the bags had not yet arrived, we ended up having a very friendly conversation with them about Kenzy and me studying Russian in St. Petersburg, which prompted one of the men to pull out his phone with the comment that St. Petersburg was very beautiful and look, he had pictures.

This conversation led to the exchange of numbers and other needed information in case the bags did show up, but in such a way that these men were willing to work with us and call us if anything did arrive.

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(First glimpse walking into the Christmas Markets)

It was not a particularly cold day, especially when carrying luggage around, but gray clouds covered the whole sky making pictures difficult. The first thing we did was make our way across town to the next hostel. We had to stop at a central metro station for a while in order to orient ourselves, but moved on to the hostel after that. This hostel Kenzy had mentioned that she and Ali had been planning to stay in it for a while. It was located in part of a castle (what was once the location of the Imperial Stables, but had been turned into an international hostel) that was central to Nuremberg in what used to be a militarily strategic location, which meant it was on top of a hill. Since Kenzy was the only one who had her bag at the time, she experienced the full impact of the hill. Ali and I only carried what we had used as carry-ons on the plane. Even without the bags to carry up the hill, it was not a small hill. Once we made it inside, a snappy German man immediately informed us that we could not check in until 3:00 p.m., which we did not care about, we just wanted a luggage storage room so that we could set our stuff down and actually enjoy our first day in Nuremberg.

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(First glimpse of the castle)

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(There were horse drawn carriages giving people tours of Nuremberg, pulled by some of the biggest horses I have ever seen).

After we were granted a storage room, Ali called the airport where her luggage was supposed to come from and I tried to call the number I had been given by Aeroflot representatives. Throughout the day we tried this number quite a few times and never had any luck with someone picking up the phone. I tried that and other airport numbers enough times that I ran through the money that Kenzy had put on her Russian phone should something like this occur. I used her phone because I did not have mine with me.

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(We came back down to the markets to find them more crowded, but not as crowded as they would become).

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(Different parts of the market had different names, this was the children’s section, but good food belongs to everyone, so we visited it).

We spent our day wandering around the markets and trying some food here and there, but since we couldn’t try everything in one day we spent some time scoping out what we might want to try in the following days. I had woken up feeling a little under the weather and with that on top of the worry of not having my luggage returned to me I just felt like the day was dragging by despite how much I tried to enjoy it. At one point we stopped by Starbucks to ask for free water and take a break from walking around, but we were on our feet for the majority of the day. Even when eating, we would buy street food and eat it wherever we happened to be.

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(In the children’s area)

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(There were lots of children)

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(and things for them to do)

Although we spent most of our time in the markets there was the occasional wandering into non-market areas. One that I remember particularly well was a bridge over a small river. I seem to like scenes with water, tree branches and birds or ducks on gray days; I think they are rather picturesque, as cliché as that term is. What was before me in that river was exactly that type of scene.

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(The ducks in the river were either black or white, no in-between)

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At the end of the day we had potato soup served to us in a bread bowl on a napkin, that we also ate standing up. It was very good, but, although I enjoy bread bowls, I always wish there was less bread and more soup because I never eat all of the bread anyway. Regardless, the soup was very good on a cool night, even though it had pieces of bacon in it which I don’t like.

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(As the day got darker, the markets started lighting up)

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(The light shining through reflective objects)

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(You could better see the Christmas decorations)

After eating dinner we walked back up the long hill to the hostel to check in. When we checked in we asked if we could barrow their phone to make a local phone call and they said yes, but once it was past 8:00. When we got up to the room, there were six beds, two of which had already been taken. There were two Asian girls who had basically taken over the room. They had done laundry and hung their clothes on hangers in any available area in addition to taking a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom for their own personal use. It was a little bit odd, but not the end of the world.

We headed back down to the front desk at 8:00 and made the necessary calls to the airport again, which was, again, useless. This time we also called the men at Hotel Moldova, which required me to talk on the phone in Russian.

In the end I had to call the man at Hotel Moldova about 3 or 4 times because the baggage hadn’t come in. During one of these calls it sounded like he had called the airport for me and had inquired about when my luggage would arrive. Either that or the airport called him so that he knew what to tell me. Finally he told me to call him back at ten and the luggage was in. At the time when I went down to make the ten o’clock phone call, Ali came down as well in order to call the airport again to see where her bag was. Her bag had already arrived at the hostel, which we found when we got down to the front desk. Kenzy was kind enough to venture all the way across Nuremberg with me to keep me company while I collected it, which I appreciated very much since it was dark and Hotel Moldova is not located in the best area. It took about 24 hours for the people who work for the Frankfurt airport to make the 3 or 4 hour trip that Kenzy and I made the night before to drop off my bag. I was just glad I got it back all in one piece and that the Russian men had been so accommodating and helpful throughout the process.

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(On the way back up the hill, we stopped to take pictures)

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(Really only as an excuse to take a break though, although the lit-up buildings were pretty)

On the way back I got to experience what it was like to travel with the luggage and later climb the hill with it. On the way up the hill I started singing Keep Holding On by Avril Lavigne. Specifically the part that goes, So far away, I wish you were here… in direct reference to the location of the hostel at the top of the hill and me at the bottom of the hill with a heavy bag. At this point Kenzy joined in and, although we didn’t realize we knew so many of the lyrics, we sang a good portion of the song as we climbed up the hill.

The Start of Our Journey

20/12/14

This initially was written as a continuation of the last blog post, but it became too long.

The next morning I got up at 7:30, showered, ate breakfast and finished packing everything I could not pack the night before. I left my house at 9:00 (my host-parents did not bother to get up to say goodbye, but I left them a box of chocolates and a note) and went to the airport using public transportation. My flight was not until 12:30, but 12:30 is the middle of the day on a Saturday so I did not know how airport traffic would be. I arrived at the airport around 10:30, just in time for check-in to start so I didn’t have to wait around with my luggage. After making it through security, all there was left to do was wait. As I sat and waited in the Pulkovo Airport I worried about my connecting flight. Perhaps I had booked the two flights too close together.

My first flight left ten minutes late and arrived in the Sheremyetevo Airport at 1:40 p.m. and my next flight (I thought) was at 2:30. This left me 50 minutes to make it through the airport, including passport control and security again, from a domestic terminal to an international terminal. Those 50 minutes included the time I would have to wait to leave the plane, which would be at least ten minutes from my position closer to the back then the front. I was able to skip over a few of the rows of seats I would have had to wait behind because while other people were still pulling their coats on, I already had my luggage out of the overhead compartments and was headed down the aisle. As soon as I had enough space to walk, I was literally running through the airport following the signs that told me where to make an international connection.

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(I didn’t take many pictures because we were traveling all day, but I liked these clouds with the sun shining on them).

When I arrived at passport control I was out of breath, but there seemed to be no line so I was able to walk up to one of the desks almost immediately. However, when I got there, the man at the desk seemed to take forever with my passport as though he was confused by some information he was receiving from it. It wasn’t until after I was through passport control that I realized a small line was forming at the security check point. Even though I had already been through security in St. Petersburg, I had to do it again in Moscow because of the rules of domestic and international flights. I remember standing behind a man, being that annoying person who is literally tapping their foot and huffing with impatience often enough to make anyone want to tell you to stop. I made it through security without much problem. I am accustomed to flying enough that I rarely make mistakes going through security, although it is hard to keep track of which countries want your shoes off or on or want you to take your laptop out, but other than that I think that airport security is generally straightforward with similar requirements. (There was one male in my study abroad program this last semester who, as we were preparing for travel week and flight information was being provided for us, said he was usually stopped at the airport for his contact solution because his containers were too big. To this, Liz promptly replied that many of us wear contacts and don’t have a problem, you just have to put it in your checked bag, or use travel sized containers. The stupidity of some people when it comes to these things astounds me sometimes. Airport security is not that hard, even if it is a little bit confusing and intimidating at times).

After I made it through security, I was running again. When I booked the flight, I did not remember booking something with such a short layover. After I found my gate I was dismayed because I thought they had already boarded the flight and closed the gate. It was about 2:05 p.m. when I got there, 5 minutes before the time I thought the gates were supposed to close and I didn’t understand why they had closed early. I spent another few minutes wandering around the terminal in a state of worry and consumed with frustration, looking for an Aeroflot representative who could help me.  They don’t have the information desks in Russia like they do in airport terminals in the United States where you can get in line and ask for help if you need it. Instead I had to find another gate that was going to have an Aeroflot flight. I finally did and told a lady about my problem, explaining in rushed, and probably awful, Russian that the gate had already closed and that I had been on time to my flight, not even knowing if she could help me. At first she told me that my gate was 21, which I told her I knew and explained again that the gate was closed. She looked at my boarding pass again and told me that the 2:30 was the boarding time and not the departure time and the plane had not even started boarding yet. I guess it is better to run through the airport thinking you will be late and be on time then it is to actually be late.

I sat down for a bit and waited and bought (accidently) carbonated water, which is very popular in Russia, because I was so thirsty after running through the airport. As boarding time drew closer, I stood up to move towards the gate and ran into my friend Kenzy, who I would be traveling with. From this leg of the journey we would be together for the rest of the way. We exchanged our stories of our days traveling so far, where I ran through the airport while Kenzy sat in TGI Friday’s and had a sundae (because one of our friends had been talking to her about it before that and it sounded good) while surrounded by ALL of the other Americans in the terminal, also sitting in TGI Friday’s enjoying their lunch.

The plane ride was like any other plane ride with as many comforts and discomforts as one can handle. I think that Aeroflot gives its passengers a bit more space than other airlines and one plus is that they ALWAYS give you food, even if the flight is only an hour long, where as I have flown other airlines like SAS and not eaten all day because they only give you tea and coffee for free. One of the reasons that Aeroflot gives you space and food is because they have a terrible reputation for being an unsafe and generally not very good airline. They have been working for a while (I am not sure how long) to change their reputation, but that takes time and effort, so they have just been trying to make their airline that much better than other airlines. On our 3.5 hour long flight we were offered a full dinner with wine or juice, as well as tea or coffee to drink after if we desired.

During this flight, the girl sitting next to me decided it would be a good idea to paint her nails. I don’t know why she decided to do this in such close quarters, but that coupled with the young boy kicking the back of my seat made for an unpleasant flight. Coupled with these discomforts was the constant worry that because my connection would have been tight if I hadn’t bothered to run from one terminal to another, I wondered if my luggage would make it on my next flight.

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(The sun setting over the wing of the plane was beautiful)

Kenzy and I were on the same flight, but we were not sitting in the same part of the plane, so when it came time to get off, I was swept along by the rest of the crowd while she was at the back still waiting to get out. As I made my way up to the passport control counter in Germany, the officer asked me if I was traveling alone, so of course I mentioned Kenzy. Then I was asked why we weren’t together, because apparently this was bad, and I tried to explain the situation where we had been sitting in different parts of the plane. Kenzy told me later that she was stuck behind a Russian babushka, who, despite the unidirectional flow of people, asked directions to the luggage pick-up area and was disappointed that she had to go through passport control before getting her luggage. The officer then proceeded to ask why I was acting nervous, which was only because I was hot wearing a full jacket in an airport and worrying about my luggage.

When I did finally make it to the baggage claim area, I found that my bag had indeed not arrived. I waited around for a small amount of time to see if Kenzy would come out, but I thought it would be more efficient if I went ahead and declared my lost bag. When I was finished giving the information needed, I went out and found Kenzy.

From the airport we made our way from one bus to a train station to another bus station. We had flown into Frankfurt because it was less expensive, but that meant we needed to take a bus to Nuremberg. When we arrived at the bus station, we found that the bus was delayed 40 minutes, so we went back into the train station to eat dinner.

We had not been looking around for very long when we found a place that sold burritos. Okay, so they weren’t Mexican burritos, but we had not had burritos since we had been in the United States.

When we went out to the bus stop around the new departure time, it took us a bit of confusion, but we finally found the bus and it actually left exactly 40 minutes late.

We arrived in Nuremberg rather late and had to make our way from the random location the bus dropped us off to where our hostel was located. It was an adventure and a task to complete this in a country where we did not speak the language. The metro was decorated in orange tiles and because the maps were the only empty parts of the walls, many of the homeless people chose these as optimal sitting locations. This meant that we had to find a map with no homeless people below it that we could contemplate until we figured out what to do. The trip from the bus station to the hostel took us probably around an hour since we had trouble figuring out the maps. We ended up in a poorly lit area, wandering down the street we knew the hostel was on. The hostel was called Hotel Moldova, although it was definitely not a hotel.

Kenzy knows a few more words in German than I do, however many people in Germany know at least a little bit of English which is how we had managed to get by up until this point. When we went to check in, we first tried English and then German, but our little bit of German was not enough at this point. Clued in by the name, Hotel Moldova, a Russian flag on the outside of the building and directions in Russian, Kenzy thought to ask if the man at the desk spoke Russian. He did, so we were able to communicate with more ease, although it was odd that we encountered the need to use Russian on our first night in Germany.

We went up to our room and I was introduced to Ali for the first time. She had studied German when she was little and after we told her our experience with the man speaking Russian, Ali commented that she hadn’t thought her German was as rusty as they had made it seem.

Ali’s bag was also lost in transit, so the only complete bag we had was Kenzy’s. Both Ali’s and my bag were supposed to arrive the next day, but I had not been told when the next day mine was supposed to arrive, which was a problem since we were going to another hostel the following night. It also was also problematic because I could not shower or change clothes and I did not have my toothbrush packed with me.

The room was small. Three beds were crammed into it with the sheets, blankets and pillows already in place. Hostels that make the beds for you make me uncomfortable because usually the linens are placed in a clean stack on top of each bed for the users to order themselves. There was a sign on the door that the hostel had become non-smoking earlier that year, but we could still smell stale smoke on the sheets covered up by washing with scented fabric softener or something and perhaps sprayed with another agent to help mask the scent. In one corner was a small television with a DVD player attached. The hostel had no wireless internet and we did not try to turn on the television to see what else it didn’t have to offer. Although I did not particularly like this hostel, we had all made it to the same location with a place to sleep and I could say, with a little bit of adventure, that the trip was officially starting.

A Train and a Pizza Parlor Game

05/11/14 

(The image is one of the only pictures I took that day, and I took it from the train).

On Thursday morning we got up at 6 a.m. to be ready by the time the taxi was scheduled to arrive at 6:30. I had hoped that we would be able to get our stuff together rather quickly and then eat some breakfast, but we ended up having to wait until we boarded the train to eat. The train ride was 5 to 6 hours from Yaroslavl’ to Kovrov, and the first leg of the journey was very enjoyable. Unfortunately as the train carried on along the countryside, it was required to pick up more passengers. At one of the stops, a whole group of Middle-Eastern men boarded the train. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but they were noisy and rambunctious and carried too much luggage with them. There is a weight limit of 33 kilos per person on passenger trains and they seemed to have a lot more. I am speaking of at least 20 men who each had this amount of luggage, they seemed to swarm in and take over the train. One of them thought it would be okay to throw one of his bags on top of my stuff, but even though I was flustered by the sudden influx of people I managed to tell him in Russian that that was not okay with me. I knew my friend and I would be departing the train sooner than they were and I didn’t want to have to dig my bag out. I also think that it is just inconsiderate to think it is okay to put your stuff on top of someone else’s without asking. What if they have something fragile in there?

The conductor did not like them very much either. He yelled at them quite a bit about how they were only allowed to have 33 kilos of luggage and how theirs looked like a lot more. He continued to yell at them as they spoke in their native tongue, telling them to speak only in Russian because it was rude to speak in a different language and he told them that their language was too noisy and not nice to listen too.

On long trips I cannot stay awake on transportation, so I slept most of the time even though it hurt my neck, but at least it helped the time pass. As we drew closer to our station, the same conductor who had been yelling at them men earlier was very kind to us and gave us updates on how soon we would arrive at our station. The cadence of his speech was very awkward and very hard for me to understand but I managed. I was glad to get off of the train and away from all of the noise.

All I had eaten so far was a piece of bread with poppy seeds (which prompted a conversation about Christina and me not being able to pass a drug test, which in turn gave into joking around about poppy seeds being a gateway drug to opium. I tripped over my words and the gateway drug to opium became a gateway drug to oatmeal. We go hard on oatmeal…), so when we got off of the train, we decided to look for a place to eat. We knew Kovrov was small, and initially we had planned to spend the day there walking around and seeing what a small Russian city was like. Unfortunately we did not factor our bags into the equation. We had to carry them around everywhere we went.

As we started our walk towards the street that ran straight outside of the train station, Christina’s wallet fell out of her pocket. Luckily she was able to pick it up and put it back in her pocket, but I thought for a moment that maybe she should move it if it fell out once because it might fall out again. Unfortunately I didn’t say anything. We continued to walk down the street and as we came to the end of the block and decided to turn around because we were not seeing anything more promising than what we had already seen, Christina realized her wallet had fallen out of her pocket again. We quickly retraced our steps again to see if it had been left on the ground (although I realized then that we didn’t check the corner we had just been standing on) but we didn’t find it. Christina started to become more and more agitated, which I understand, but I couldn’t deal with it because I hadn’t eaten. I asked her what was in the wallet, and after realizing that it was about 1500 rubles and her driver’s license, I agreed that it was unfortunate but that we needed to move on.

We went to a pizza place to eat because Christina said she still had other money. It was interesting to eat in Kovrov because it seemed as though they didn’t often run into people who speak English. We ordered a pizza to split (smaller than the regular size found in the United States). None of their pizzas looked normal exactly, but it was good to me since I was hungry. It is also hard to go wrong with pizza. We ordered cocktails with our pizza as sort of a comfort drink to Christina for losing her wallet (I think she was more upset about losing the actual wallet than the stuff inside it, but in general it not fun to lose things, especially personal items).

I remember part of the way through the meal she got a phone call from an unknown number and we both agreed that she shouldn’t answer it because how could someone get her Russian phone number? Since she didn’t pick up, they texted her a few minutes later, but her phone can’t read Cyrillic leaving the message to just be a bunch of boxes on the screen. I told her to forward the message to me to see if my phone could read it, and it could. Someone had been very kind and written to her in Russian that they found documents with the name Christina on them. She immediately called the number back, but the person didn’t answer. On the second try, a male voice answered, but Christina had trouble understanding him so she handed the phone to me. It was very hard to understand him because there was a lot of background noise and a woman talking too, but I got across where we were and what we were near and it was decided that they would meet near the train station. After hanging up, we waited for a bit to see if the man would call back when he got near the station, but eventually I sent Christina outside because I didn’t want her to miss this opportunity.

In the mean time I waited. I finished my portion of the pizza, but I felt like I couldn’t just sit there, so I ordered another drink which I made sure to drink very slowly. Christina returned probably after about 20 minutes with a huge smile on her face. All of the money and her license were still in the wallet. We looked in her wallet and speculated how the man had gotten her number, but the only thing I could find was a business card that had the numbers of program coordinators for our program back in St. Petersburg. He would have had to call one of those numbers first before being able to get Christina’s.

Christina ordered another drink in celebration instead of consolation this time. As we sat there, I found out that the man who had brought Christina her wallet was actually a young man. I thought it would have been an old couple, but it turns out that Russian’s are just nice people. Not that I thought they weren’t before, but they have helped us every step of the way on this journey.

Christina ordered a salad to conclude our meal, and we enjoyed seeing how long we could stay at the restaurant. The waiters and waitresses did not seem to become irritated with us, probably because we kept ordering new things. In the end the bill was smaller than a meal for two without drinks would be in St. Petersburg. When we decided it was finally time to leave the restaurant, I only had a 5000 ruble note, which is a really frustrating piece of money to have. It is sort of like a $100 bill; no one wants to accept it and no one wants to give you change for it. I decided to pay with it to see what would happen and have Christina pay me back later. The bill was less than 100 rubles for the two of us, but the change I got back was all in 100 ruble notes. There are two possibilities for the reasons behind this. Either the waiter just wanted to give me a hard time, or the restaurant genuinely did not have bigger notes, which I somehow don’t believe.

For the rest of the time in Kovrov we sat in the train station waiting.

The train ride to Vladimir was very short; it took only about 30 minutes. Before we left, we had looked up what transportation would take us from the train station to the hostel so we thought we were ready. As we sat at the bus stop outside the station in the cold watching bus after bus go by with the time, Christina started getting frustrated again. In the end we decided it would be good if she went back inside and looked up the transportation again. It turned out that a bus that had already passed us multiple times was the one we needed to take and we had been waiting for the wrong number the whole time, but at least we figured it out before the public transportation stopped running for the night.

To add a dark alley to a long day, it turned out the hostel was located in a small building in between apartment buildings, on a poorly lit side road. But, again, we made it safely and that is what matters.

Walking Free and Meat Me

03/11/14

I remember my host mom in Kazan’ telling me that in the Golden Ring, most of the tours are of churches. The Golden Ring is a group of old cities located not far from Moscow that are situated in a sort of ring, thus the name the Golden Ring. Yaroslavl’ is one of the cities located in the Golden Ring, so during my time in the city I had the opportunity to see many churches.

Christina and I had a slow start to our day. We finally had time to relax and take a break from CIEE’s activities, so we took advantage of it and decided to take our time doing what we wanted to do. After I showered, I was able to have a nice conversation with the woman who was working at the front desk of the hostel when we arrived the night before. I like conversations like these because it helps me practice my Russian, but I also get to learn a little bit about someone who I wouldn’t otherwise know anything about. It turns out this woman was a professor, and now she has a son around the age of 35 who already has five diplomas in different areas of study and works in Moscow.

After Christina and I had finished getting ready we realized we didn’t have breakfast food, so we made a sort of makeshift breakfast with some apples that Christina had and peanuts that I had, and decided we should buy some food before we returned to the hostel later that day.

Christina had looked up directions on how to take the public transportation to the city center, but even with directions, navigating a new city can be confusing. We turned right from the hostel and walked until we found a bus stop. We knew the number of bus we were supposed to take; we just had to make sure we got on one going the right direction. Unfortunately it was difficult to tell what the right direction was because we didn’t know the city. I remembered the taxi trip the night before, when the driver told us that we were driving through the city center to get to the hostel and I thought we had come from the other direction to get to the hostel but I wasn’t the one who had taken the initiative to look up the directions so I decided to go with what Christina said.

We got on a trolleybus and passed quite a few stops before we decided the scenery was looking wilder and less populated. We decided eventually to get off and get on a bus going the other direction, and thankfully before we did this we were able to find a café with wifi to look up what busses would bring us to the city center. It turned out that only Marshrutka’s could take us from where we had ended up to where we wanted to go. (Marshrutkas are sort of minivans that you pay a flat rate to go on whatever route they drive. It is like any regular transportation except I believe they are privately run and they don’t have to stop at every stop. They only stop when passengers ask them to, or if someone from the road flags them down).

We decided that it hadn’t been a waste of time to go in the wrong direction because it was enjoyable to see a less populated area of the city. We didn’t have a set schedule anyway, so spending some of our time somewhere else did not interfere with any plans we had. Yaroslavl’ is a small city so we decided the first day that we would just walk around and go to any place that struck our interest.

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(The first church we visited)

The first place we ended up was a beautiful brick Orthodox Church. The outside was magnificent, but the inside was nothing special. The icons looked like a different quality than the ones I had seen in Moscow, Kazan’ and St. Petersburg, but Yaroslavl’ is a less known city so that could be a reason why their icons and ornaments were not as impressive.  Although my friend Christina did mention to me later that she had seen an icon with a dog’s head, which we had not seen in an Orthodox Church before, and looking it up later, she concluded that it was probably St. Christopher, but could have been St. Andrew or St. Bartholomew. The lure behind it is that when the city was a city of cannibals, the people had dog’s heads, but after they were baptized, the baptism cured them of this. Apparently it is very rare to find icons with dog’s heads so this was a lucky find on Christina’s part. I am sorry I didn’t see it myself. The other interesting piece that Christina saw in the church was a stone with a carving of a crucifix on it. Christina has not looked this up yet, but it is interesting because it is not something we commonly see in Orthodox Churches.

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(Another church)

After we left the church, we wandered through the city a little more until we came upon a foot street like they seem to have in every Russian city. We walked down it hoping to find something interesting, but the only part we found interesting was an antique shop which was located a little beyond the foot street. The shop had very beautiful and ornate pieces, but of course they all had painfully high prices accompanying them, so we continued on down the street only to find another cathedral.

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(The church we found down the street)

This cathedral was located on one side of a square. It seemed to be closed so we only took pictures of the outside, but it was interesting because the church was only two or three colors except the arch over what seemed to be the main entrance. The arch was very colorful and didn’t seem to fit with the design of the church at all, but I find with Orthodox churches that their designs don’t usually make sense.

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(The colorful archway)

On the other three sides of this square were three other large buildings. One that was gray and obviously Soviet style with the hammer and sickle represented on its corners, while the others were imperial style with brighter colors and baroque-style white trim. The combination of multiple periods and styles of architecture in one square was really beautiful, and it was pleasant to look at even though the change from the bright white and yellow building to the solid gray building was sort of shocking at first glance.

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(The yellow and white building)

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(The Soviet building)

After we visited this square we had been out for a few hours walking around, so we decided to take a break. We went to an anti-café, which is a café where you pay by the hour instead of paying for each cup of coffee or tea separately. Even after spending a couple of hours there, the bill was very small, and the experience had been enjoyable. I remember when I was in Kazan’, one of my peer tutors had wanted to take me to an anti-café, but we had not gone because at the time I was out of money. I am glad that in Yaroslavl’ I finally had the chance to experience what it was like.

From the anti-café we continued to wander the streets of Yaroslavl’ and take in the fresh air and new sights. We made our way into a second-hand store where we found full-length fur coats for a little over 3000 rubles. Fur coats are very popular in Russia, but they are also very expensive, even at second hand shops. At first when we read the price tag, I thought I had misread it and that the price was 32,000 rubles, which would have been closer to the normal price of a fur coat, but the coats were in fact just very inexpensive.

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(Some random buildings, pay attention to the color scheme here. I don’t think they quite understand the concept of paint)

When the light started disappearing from the sky, we decided it was time to look for an actual meal. Christina had found a restaurant online that appealed to her interest, so the search for that began. The restaurant was called “Meat Me,” and although I am not generally a big meat eater I hadn’t done the work of looking up a restaurant so I was willing to give this one a try.

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(And more oddly colored buildings)

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(Cool brick apartment buildings)

The interior of the restaurant reminded me of a hipster-lumberjack, if that was a thing. The waiters and waitresses were dressed in red and black plaid shirts, and the tables and other woodwork seemed to be made of freshly cut wood. On the wall behind where I sat, was a large map of a seemingly random chunk of Europe with stickers from the various countries placed inside. On my right-hand side was an old motorcycle propped in the window, which seemed a little random to me and yet, it seemed to fit somehow with the rest of the décor. The taste of the food went with the interior design of the restaurant too, so all in all it was a good meal.

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(The bike – looks sort of like a Vespa – in Meat Me)

On the way to the restaurant we had passed many product stores that kept reminding me that we needed to go shopping so that we would have something to eat the next morning. We thought it would be easy to find a store again once we left the restaurant since there had been so many, unfortunately we were mistaken. We probably walked for another half an hour before we found a store that had what we were looking for, which than allowed us to finally head back in the direction of the hostel.

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(Food from Meat Me)

Our day ended with us practicing our Russian by talking to whoever chose to speak to us, and watching movies in Russian that we had already seen in English, so we could better understand what was going on.

A New Journey (02/11/14)

My new journey was spent in the company of my friend Christina. We left the hotel in Moscow at about 5:30 p.m. because our train was supposed to leave at 7:05 p.m. We knew we would have extra time to wait at the train station when we got there, but it was good that we did because we spent at least 15 minutes trying to figure out where our platform was and what we were supposed to do with our electronic tickets. We were lucky the workers at the train station were so willing to help us out, but as it was, we had to ask multiple people what to do and where to go since the directions were all in Russian and we didn’t always understand everything they were trying to tell us. In the end it worked out, and we knew we were on the right train because the train left at exactly 7:05 p.m. Russian trains are never late.

This train ride was only a few hours, so we arrived in Yaroslavl’ (our first destination) at 10:21 p.m. We had looked up options for transportation online prior to making the journey. Yaroslavl’ public transportation is supposed to stop running at 10:00 p.m., so we decided our best option was to take a taxi. Usually at train stations or airports in Russia, there are men standing around outside asking if anyone needs a taxi ride. It was no different in Yaroslavl’, but when we gave the address for the hostel we had made reservations at, none of the taxi drivers seemed to know where it was. This was very odd to me because it is a taxi-driver’s job to know where hostels and hotels are, or at least to have a gps to find it, but I guess this is Russia. Eventually one man did show up who seemed to know where our hostel was located, and he took as straight there.

The hostel seemed very nice and well put-together, but there seemed to be a few discrepancies. Usually at hostels they provide towels to accompany the sheets, but here they only gave us a small hand towel. When I went to the bathroom, I saw no hint of a shower, so I wondered if they hadn’t given us real towels because they had no showers. Later Christina found that I hadn’t been observant enough and that half of the stalls in the bathroom were bigger and did indeed have showers in them; we just didn’t get towels to go with the showers.

The second problem for me was the beds. As I mentioned in my last post, I had thrown my back out that morning. The beds at the hostel were a thin mattress place on top of wire. My back did not like it, but eventually I was able to fall asleep despite this and one other inconvenience. My friend and I stayed in a 10 bed, gender neutral room because it was the only room left open when we booked it. On this first night there was a man already sleeping in the corner. Throughout the whole night, he snored and coughed very loudly. I kept wondering why his coughing didn’t wake him up, but it definitely woke the rest of us up. Another guy who stayed in the same room, on a bed near me got mad at the guy in the middle of the night. He said these in Russian so I didn’t understand them completely, but he kept making comments to the man about why he was there, and how rude he was being. I understand that one cannot control themselves if they snore, or if they are sick and have a cough, but I also think that one should not stay in a hostel in close proximity with other people if they are sick and risk infecting other people.

Since Yaroslavl’ is not as large of a city as St. Petersburg or Moscow, it seems that every other person in our hostel except Christina and I, were Russian. I didn’t mind it, I had a good time practicing my Russian with the staff, and the other people in the hostel basically ignored us.

Thankfully, our first full day in Yaroslavl’ held a much more rewarding experience than a room with a coughing and snoring man.

Returning to Kazan’ and Moscow

27/10/14-02/11/14 Russian Travel Week with the program

It appears that all of my previous work that I have been meaning to post has vanished, so I will have to start from the beginning of last week.

Last week we had Russian travel week with our program, but we didn’t fly out until Monday night. On Monday we had the same class schedules that we would every Monday, which was very unfortunate for me, especially since that Monday and the week before was the week of midterm exams. So, on Monday I have four classes from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. and an hour of transportation in each direction. I also had a midterm in my Russian Conversation class, so by the end of the day I was stressing myself out wondering if I would make it home in time to finish packing last minute accessories before heading to the airport. To top that off, the program refused to return our passports until the last possible minute. As in, they have had them since the program started and continued to hold onto them to get our visa extensions until that Monday, and then informed us that we couldn’t pick them up until the our classes for the day had ended. Many of us have traveled before and are used to holding on to our passports, as well as feeling uncomfortable without them, so the fact that they keep treating us like incompetent children concerning our passports is rather frustrating. I must say this part of the program was not very good planning on CIEE’s part.

I ended up getting to the airport early so I probably didn’t need to worry about having enough time, but I always think that it is better to be safe than sorry.  Many of us students waited around at the airport for at least an hour before any of the program directors made it there themselves.

The flight left at a time close to midnight and landed in Kazan’ very early in the morning, which caused many of us to be tired for the rest of the trip. We probably didn’t get to bed until about 4:00 a.m.

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(A wall in the old Tatar part of the city)

I was very excited to return to Kazan’ since I spent my summer there, but I was very disappointed with the trip. The first day we went on a useless bus tour around the city the first time I was in Kazan’ and went on a bus tour, it was actually interesting, but this time the only parts of the city they really showed us were many different sports complexes. No one is really interested in visiting a foreign city and seeing all of their sports facilities, it is not interesting for us, but that is what the program chose to show to us. For lunch, they brought us to a mall way outside the center of the city, which made me very angry because it stripped every one of the opportunity to try local Tatar cuisine, and me of the opportunity to return to cafes that I had frequented over the summer. The mall had typical chain mall restaurants, and nothing that was what I wanted.

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(Sightseeing at the end of the bus tour)

I remember the one fun part of this bus tour was at one of the sports complexes. We went to the roof of one of the buildings (I have no idea why) and my friend Sophia and I spent our time sliding around on a giant frozen puddle, pretending to ice skate. The tour was so disappointing that we did this to entertain ourselves. Later when my friend asked about the point of the sports facilities part of the tour, she was told that it was part of their culture (since Kazan’ is also the sports capitol of Russia), but I guess we just have different definitions of culturally significant sights to see. By the end of the bus tour I was at the point of walking back to the hotel since I knew the city well enough to do that, but for some reason I ended up sticking it out.

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(Chandelier in the Kul Sharif Mosque)

That night, I took some of my friends to a Tatar café I knew so we could eat dinner. I was glad to hear that they really enjoyed it since Tatarstan and Kazan’ mean a lot to me because of the experience and people I knew there. After dinner we stopped by a small store or a “продукты,” which literally translates to “products,” and I picked up some chak-chak, which is a Tatar dessert. That night I spent time with some of my friends in my hotel room, sharing the chak-chak with them and just enjoying each other’s company.

The next day had a tour of the Kazan’ Kremlin in it. I think the Kremlin is a wonderful place to visit in Kazan’ because it is so beautiful, but the tour was four hours long, and I had already been there. But at least the tour was much better than the tour had been the day before. At lunch time after the tour, I took some of my friends to one of my favorite cafes in Kazan’ that I had frequented with my friends over the summer. I made them try my favorite dishes of Lagman (a sort of noodle soup that isn’t really a soup and isn’t only noodles) and Plov (a rice dish). I had them order Lipioshka with these dishes, which is a common way to eat them. Lipioshka is a naan like bread that is from a different part of the world. The food is very hard to describe if you haven’t seen or had it before.

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(Kul Sharif Mosque inside of the Kazan’ Kremlin)

After lunch we wondered around the city and returned to the Peter and Paul Cathedral so that my friends could see it. While we were there we ventured into the bottom part of the church, which I had not seen before, so it was interesting for me. When we left the church, we wandered into some souvenir shops to look around, but shortly after we had to go our separate ways because other people had prior commitments. I had plans to meet with my friends Laison and Alfia, whom I had met over the summer, for dinner. We had a very nice dinner, making fun of a group of guys who were getting drunk on the other side of the restaurant, and just enjoying one another’s company.  They had a class to get to and I had had a long day that was not yet complete so I decided to take a quick nap before I left to go visit my host mom.

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(One of my favorite buildings in Kazan’, I believe it is the center of agriculture. In the archway – you can’t see it here – is a tree that holds up the arch that was designed after the Lord of the Rings came out)

At my host mom’s house, she fed me second dinner – homemade manti – I don’t normally like manti but my host mom knows I like it when it is homemade. It was nice to be able to catch up with her, and just talk about everything relevant and irrelevant like we used to, and paint our nails together.

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(A wedding palace)

The last day we went to the Raifa Monestary (which I had already been to when I was in Kazan’ before, and didn’t care to see again). I did enjoy it more this time than the last time, although I think that was in part because we didn’t spend as long there as I had the last time. In addition, it is always enjoyable to see the same place at a different time of year.

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(On the way to my host mom’s house I always see the entrance to the Kremlin)

After Raifa, we had some free time before we had to go to the train. We walked around the rinok and bought scarves and other items like food that would be useful on a 12 hour train ride. In the end we wore ourselves out from walking so much, which was good because we had no choice but to sit or lay day for most of the 12 hours on the train.

I have done this 12 hour train ride from Kazan’ to Moscow before, but this time CIEE decided to give us private compartments. I was in a compartment with my friends Sophia, Helen and Lacy and we ended up watching a cartoon movie about a half-white zebra named Cumba. I have never heard of this movie before, but it kept us entertained for a while and made us practice our Russian in an offhand way since the movie was in Russian.

Eventually we all went to bed, although it was so hot that I couldn’t sleep well at all which didn’t bode well for the schedule the next day. Helen and I tried for about half an hour to open the window in hour compartment, but it wouldn’t open, so we finally gave up and tried to sleep. In the morning (after I had finally fallen asleep) we were all unpleasantly awakened by a Russian lady going from compartment to compartment, violently opening the doors and saying “доброе утро” unnecessarily loudly.

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(Some buildings we stopped to take pictures of during the bus-tour in Moscow)

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(During the same stop but in another direction. I was probably too tired to listen to what these buildings actually were)

Our schedule for the day (Halloween by the way) was of course a bus tour of the city. Our tour guides tour went something along the lines of “on the right you will see *insert a building or a monument,* on the left you will see…” and so on. So, since I was already tired, I promptly fell asleep until we had to get out of the bus to see something. One place we did get to see that I enjoyed was Swan Lake, the lake where the ballet was composed. But other than that, it was not very interesting.

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(Looking across Swan Lake)

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(A row of ducks in Swan Lake)

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(They were pretty, so I took quite a few pictures of them)

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(The lake had a thin layer of ice over most of it, but here the ducks seemed to have found a place to swim)

Later in the day I took a nap because I was just too tired to do anything else (such as wander around the city), but at night I wanted to do something for Halloween. Some friends invited me to go out in the city with them for the night, but after my experience with taxis in Berlin I didn’t want to risk staying out so late that I would have to pay for a taxi to get back after the public transportation stopped running, so I declined. Instead I watched a horror movie with some other friends and tried to go to bed at a reasonable time.

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(The entrance to Red Square. Our tour guide made sure we knew that it was translated incorrectly into English because the word for “red” in Russian can sometimes mean “beautiful,” and this is suppoed to be Beautiful Square)

On November first we went to the Moscow Kremlin. I had already been to the Kremlin last time I was in Moscow, but this time we had a tour of the Armory, which I hadn’t been to before. The Armory, although it didn’t have much armor in it, was very beautiful. It has a collection of gifts from royalty of other countries to the tsars of Russia, as well as a lot of old coronation attire, crowns, and ornate carriages from the tsars. The rest of the time in the Kremlin we spent walking around the grounds, and then visited one church in Cathedral Square.

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(A view of Moscow State University from the grounds of the Kremlin – the white building in the back)

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(One cathedral in Cathedral Square)

After the Kremlin, we went to eat at an Italian restaurant because we had eaten breakfast at about nine, and did not eat lunch until around four. They don’t seem to understand the concept of “lunchtime” and that people get hungry. The lunch was very reasonably priced for Moscow, and it was very good, probably because we were all so hungry. I had a seafood pasta dish. I love seafood, and I really wanted it at the time even though we weren’t close to the sea so it definitely wasn’t as fresh as it could have been, but I still enjoyed it. To accompany my meal, my friend and I shared an appetizer (it came after the meal, so I don’t think Russians quite understand the idea of appetizers) it was a sort of cheesy bread but much better since I don’t really like cheesy bread. It was more spiced than cheesy, which is probably why I enjoyed it but I probably shouldn’t have been eating bread and pasta in the first place due to my minor gluten intolerance.

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(The Bolshoi Theatre, I took a picture because it was on the way somewhere)

After returning to the hotel, my friend Christina came to Helen’s and my room and hung out with us. We had a very fun time talking about whatever subject seemed to come up before we decided to wander around Moscow at night and find a club. We ended up walking a lot because Moscow is big so the nightlife is very spread out, needless to say I didn’t enjoy going out in Moscow as much as I did in Kazan’ or St. Petersburg, where you don’t have to walk a mile to find the next bar or club. In the end we ended up taking a gypsy cab back to the hotel (an unregistered cab. They are very common in Russia, but I would never take one alone).

The next morning we had to pack everything up because it was our last day in Moscow and we had to check out of the hotel by 11:00 a.m. Unfortunately, as I was getting ready, my back went out and I still had to finish packing and I had an excursion to go on even though it hurt to walk, much less breathe. We went to a history museum, but I don’t remember anything in particular because I didn’t have a very enjoyable time walking around with a hurt back.

After the excursion, Christina and I immediately returned to the vicinity of the hotel and got something to eat. I promptly fell asleep on the couch for about an hour before we decided it was time to catch our train for the next week’s journey.